This sermon was preached on August 9, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus walks upon the sea.
One of the most frightening things in life is when the familiar, the comforting, becomes strange to us.
10 years ago, I remember the horrific shock of seeing my father intubated in a hospital bed after his first major heart attack. Here was a person I knew better than almost anyone else—the man who had held my hand on the sidewalk as a child, the man whose voice was the very sound of warmth and safety—here he was draped in shadow and blinking lights, in dreamless slumber, his skin slick with sweat, his features empty.
He was not yet gone, but he was far from me, and seeing him there as a figure unreachable, uncomprehensible, was a formative moment of terror—the last gasp of my childhood, the unraveling of certainties, the perilous thinness of the boundary between what is given and what is taken away.
If in our gospel passage we are speaking of voyages across stormy seas, then in that moment for me there was no shoreline in sight—only the roiling waves, the wind, the deep, and the realization that as much as I loved him and as much as I needed him, my father’s fragile life did not belong to me and never had; he did not exist solely to provide me with security—his soul had its own wild freedom, and I could only stand there and behold it, suspended in the wind, at the outset of its own new journey.
We all have to reckon with this realization at some point in our lives—that the things we cherish are always slightly beyond our grasp, like a sunset we cannot make stay.
Perhaps you, too, have felt that same mixture of suprise and fear at some point, when you realize that the person or the thing you love most is not entirely your own—standing beside a hospital bed, as I did, or waving goodbye as the car pulls out of the driveway, or in the evasive eyes of a lover whose love has left, or even in the daily news headlines that suggest the world is far more complex, unpredictable, and frightening than you thought it was.
These are the destabilizing revelations, the mini-apocalypses of our lives—the inbreaking of awareness that everything we thought we knew, everything that felt within our grasp, was never actually within the parameters of our control.
And this is what terrifies the disciples on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee—not the storm itself, but the vision of Jesus approaching them through the storm, his feet suspended above the raging depths, an enigma and an impossibility.
How beyond understanding he has become, their humble teacher: the one they love and trust and rely upon, the one they thought they knew. How very strange he seems now, a ghostly image striding across the waters, no longer the benevolent offerer of bread and fish and a healing touch, but the embodied and eternal voice speakign out of the whirlwind, the untamed majesty of the transcendent I AM who parted the Red Sea and called from the flaming bush, as free as the wind and as inscrutable as the depth of night.
This is the very same Jesus, yes, but it is an overflowing manifestation of his fullness that defies the disciples’ comfortable assumptions, despite the miracles they have already witnessed. And he has a lesson for them, and for us.
One of the greatest temptations we will ever face is to feel threatened by that which we cannot understand. When we are afraid, we can reject the unfamiliar becasue it undermines our sense of an ordered and safe world. And in this singular impulse we can trace a myriad of tragedies throughout human history—the othering of minorities, the persecution of the innocent, the viciousness of groups, both religious and cultural, who insist upon the purity of their own moral vision. The institutional church is not exempt from this, as we are all painfully aware.
In ways large and small, each of us has likely participated in this tendency, every time we try to fashion another person into our image, every time we assume that our own social location, our own priorities, are the universal standard of judgment. In our fearfulness, you might say that we are all in the same boat, and, scared of what we glimpse in the tempest, we close our eyes, rowing desperately toward the familiar shoreline of our understanding.
But Jesus would not have us look away from him so easily. He is not simply the God of the comfortable shoreline, but also the one who emerges de profundis, from the deep places of our lives, who beckons with an authority that calls us, like Peter clambering out of the boat, to move toward that which frightens us. He shows up as God In the Storm, reaching to us across the waves, so that we will know he is there, so that we will not hide from the storms in our own lives.
Jesus is the one who asks us to let go of our fear, not because the world is a paticularly safe place—it isn’t— or because our lives will always be comfortable—they won’t—but because he is the one who sustains us despite our fear; he is, as 1 John describes, the perfect Love who casts out our fear. He is the silent stillness beneath the waves, the ground of certainty who persists in his pursuit of us, in all conditions.
We need a God who startles us a bit, if only to remember that we don’t have God all figured out. We need to let Jesus surprise us from time to time; we need to let him be just a bit more than we are comfortable with him being, so that we can learn to trust in a goodness that transcends mere pleasantness.
He remains the familiar, gentle Savior who calms the winds, yes, but he is also the wild Holy One who dances upon the storm and invites us to dance with him. When we allow Jesus to be all of this, to be both friend and stranger, both familar and new, then we begin to perceive how everything and everyone we love is also both of these things—forever ours…and forever free.
Because that was the thing about seeing my father that day in the hospital—beyond the shock, beyond the fear, beyond the strangeness, there was still love. Changed, perhaps, nuanced by grief and impending loss, but love nonetheless, spacious enough and strong enough to withstand circumstances beyond my understanding.
A love enduring, unkillable, and true. A love all-encompassing, as deep as the raging sea.